A Very Viking Yule

Gather ’round, boys and girls, as Professor Awesome reads to you an early 15th-century tale that tells of the ancient Viking past, set around the 5th or 5th century, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. In this tale you will hear of the champion Bodvar, and how he defeats a Yule-tide monster, and turns his cowardly friend Hott into the hero Hjalti.


Cover image shamelessly stolen from io9.

Geek Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree

Before Guitars and Geeks goes on a brief hiatus this holiday season, I wanted to leave you with one last post.

And it’s going to be reflective.

This year saw the publication of Geek Rock: An  Exploration of Music and Subculture, and, subsequently, the start of this column (yay!). Alex and I worked on Geek Rock for nearly two years before finally seeing it in print (which, by the way, is still one of the the coolest things ever). Geek Rock, as I’m sure you’ve already read in the introduction, began as a panel at the PCA/ACA conference. Despite our panel being scheduled across from George Takei’s keynote speech (really?! A geek rock panel across from George Takei?!), we received a great deal of fantastic feedback and participation. We pitched the idea of a book to Scarecrow (now Rowman and Littlefield), who had already heard about our panel by the time we got to the book exhibit. So we crafted a CFP, created an email address, and waited. And then the submissions came in. We were floored by the reception our CFP garnered, the quality of the submissions, the enthusiasm we received. We chose the widest scope, most representative selections, and highest quality essays to comprise Geek Rock. We edited with diligence. We went through several revisions. We dealt with lyric copyright issues. We met some truly awesome people (and I want to give another shout out to Brad Roberts here, for paying copyright fees for his own lyrics so that Paul Cantrell could include them in his chapter), read some truly awesome writing, and created a truly awesome book.

Geek Rock made my year.

It made my year before, too, really, but this year was the year we went to print. It was the year of turning in the final manuscript, submitting all the paperwork (and there’s a good deal of paper involved in publishing an edited collection), and reviewing the final proofs. It was the year that I came home to a box on my doorstep (which I nearly fell over in my enthusiasm), and I held our finished book in my hands. I probably would have kept the box, too, if my dog hadn’t ate it. Seriously. I geek-hoard things sometimes. And this year, it’s been hard not to.

It’s been a good year for geeks in general. Arrow and The Flash have been spectacular, there’s the new Star Wars trailer (eeeee!), the latest Borderlands game, and a whole bunch of stuff that I haven’t been able to keep up with because I’m busy working and writing and trying to read whenever I can. And there is so. much. music. I wish I had the money to buy everything, but I’ve been reduced to Spotify for now. And going to shows. (Support local, y’all.)

Next year, I predict,  will be stupendous. I’ll be presenting at PCA on the new Mastodon video for “The Motherload” (so let me know if you’re attending!), I’ll be reading and listening to music as much as humanly possible, not to mention starting some new podcasts (Dear Sugar!), and there’s the usual zazen, and geeking, and maybe even writing a new book proposal at some point. There will definitely be writing, and if I don’t see you elsewhere in the ‘verse, I hope to see you here, at Guitars and Geeks. Maybe I’ll even see you writing–I think it’s time to have some guest columnists and find out what some of YOU think about geek rock. Comment if you’re interested! And until then, I hope you have the happiest and geekiest of holidays!  See you next year!


A Defense of One Magic Christmas

Let’s be clear on this point: My love of Disney’s One Magic Christmas is definitely a minority opinion. Mostly the film was over-looked, having made less than $14 million when it was released in 1985. The dreadful Santa Claus: The Movie, released the very same Christmas season, made much more than that. No one saw this, and those few who saw it didn’t like it. Even the Rotten Tomatoes round-up of 50% is inflated – the film has only four reviews, and one of the positive ones is clearly ironic, calling it “A holiday flop destined to become a cult favorite among cynics who love it when well-intentioned, sincere family films fail miserably.” Ouch!

Ironically, I think the reason this film is so poorly treated is that it is way more ambitious than what we expect from a mid-80s live-action Disney film with the words “magic” and “Christmas” in the title. What we are expecting, I think, is something where some orphans save Christmas and ride around in Santa’s sleigh with a wise-cracking elf to guide them, with the ultimate message being some stupid, vapid thing like “be true to yourself” or “it’s important to work together as a team” or “run out and buy all our licensed merchandise!”

Beware: There be plenty o’ spoilers ahead.

Instead, we get a grittier version of It’s a Wonderful Life. It doesn’t look magical at all. The ’80s didn’t really look like a music video – it looked like this film. Snow on streets turned to slush. Cashiers wore red smocks that were neither flattering nor ridiculous. Old cars weren’t all beaters, they were just old. When I saw this in the theaters in 1985, I clearly remember being surprised to see a very real-looking portrayal of middle class life. Of course, the economy had really started to improve by 1985, so the depiction is probably a little closer to 1980, but this is what it was like.

The protagonist of the story is Ginny Grainger (Mary Steenburgen), mother of two whose husband Jack is good-hearted but unemployed. Ginny is working a job she hates as a cashier, and they are facing eviction shortly after Christmas, so not surprisingly, Ginny isn’t in a very jolly mood. Immediately we see one reason critics are puzzled by this film – we expect Christmas movies to be about kids, or the cheerful dad, not about a middle-aged woman struggling to survive in a tight economy. It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are both about adult men, but one is almost cartoonishly generous, while the other is almost cartoonishly stingy. There is nothing cartoonish about Ginny. She has lost her faith, and her stinginess is out of desperate fear for her family’s future, not out of any meanness of heart. She’s scared.

So now Harry Dean Stanton shows up as an angel named Gideon (though it is made clear this is not Gideon from the Bible, but rather a dead soul who has become a Christmas angel). He’s not silly like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, but rather quiet and a bit sad. He has come to deal with Ginny’s loss of faith, but from the very beginning we see that the path is very frightening and will require sacrifice. In one early scene, we see him miraculously protect the children from an errant hockey puck, but that miracle ends in a broken window – there are consequences.

Ginny and her husband argue about money and his dream to open a bicycle shop, and when he goes for a long walk around the block all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood go out at once. Later, we come to realize that this rather understated magical moment is an important turning point in the film.

From this point on, the stakes get higher and higher for Ginny, and she goes through real loss. Her husband is killed in a bank robbery, and when the robber flees, he steals the car the children are in. In the subsequent chase, the car goes off a bridge into an icy river, apparently killing the robber and the children.

Through previous conversations about angels, we have come to understand that Ginny no longer believes in any kind of afterlife, and so when Ginny returns to her empty house having lost everyone she loves, we feel her hopelessness as she weeps in the bathroom. Soon after, we find that Gideon spirited the children of the car before it went into the river, and we get a joyous reunion with the children, only to have that joy crushed when Ginny has to tell her children that their father has died and will never come back.

In response to learning of her father’s death, the daughter Abbie (a very young Elisabeth Harnois) runs away, and Gideon takes her to the North Pole where she goes to Santa’s workshop. Here is where we might expect more typical Disney fare, but even Santa’s workshop is marked by grief, albeit hopeful grief, when we learn that elves do not make the toys, but rather the departed souls, including the janitor of Abbie’s school.

Santa gives Abbie a letter Ginny had written to him when she was a little girl to return to Ginny. Not surprisingly, Ginny is stunned to get the letter, and responds with the first hopeful sign she has made in the entire film – she mails a letter to Santa that Abbie had previously given her, but she had neglected to send. At this point, all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood turn back on, and her husband Jack comes up the street, alive. Apparently, all of the events since the lights previously went out had been some sort of vision.

From the point on, the film is a happy one, culminating in a visit from Santa Claus. We have various scenes of Ginny making right all of her wrong choices from before, even to the point of giving her husband permission to use their savings to go after his life’s dream.

It is in these “setting the world right” scenes that we see an act of understated heroism from Ginny. She buys a camp stove for $50 from the robber in the previous timeline, thus giving him the hope he needs to resist robbing the bank. At first glance, this might seem like a maudlin moment of Ginny doing a good deed, until we remember that Ginny just experienced this very same man gunning down her husband and kidnapping her children. This isn’t just Ginny’s compassion toward some penniless beggar; this is literally loving your enemy.

Perhaps the most important part of the ending of the film is that nothing has changed from before timeline split. Santa doesn’t bring her husband a job. They will still be evicted from their home in a matter of days. She’s still working as a cashier in a job she hates. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, no one shows up with donations to save them from financial ruin. Scrooge doesn’t give Bob Cratchett a raise and deliver the biggest goose around to save Tiny Tim. Life is still hard; all that has changed is Ginny’s perspective.

In the end, One Magic Christmas is a film about hope, real hope in real circumstances. For a film with magic and Santa Claus, there is very little true fantasy in the film. And for that reason, I love One Magic Christmas. It’s not about visiting Santa; it’s about fixing our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.


The Soundtrack Awakens

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the new Star Wars teaser trailer was released this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, then it’s really strange that you read Guitars and Geeks, and you should probably see it immediately:

Having just finished most of Fringe (and by most, I mean I couldn’t make it through Season Five. I tried. I may try again. But wow. And not a good wow.), I was trepidatious about J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars. I still am, frankly, but the teaser trailer (not to mention his amazing Star Trek reboot), has alleviated my anxieties, far more than a teaser trailer really should. Why? I have no qualms about admitting this. It’s because of his use of the sound track. More specifically, it’s because of the exquisite partnering of John Williams’ score with each shot from the film. With each shot, we get a snippet of Williams’ score, offering anxiety, urgency, foreboding. The sounds of the action overlay most of the score, and the mysterious narrator teases us with information. And then, after another dark pause where the screen blanks, the Millennium Falcon sweeps across the sky with the sweep of music into the main theme, loud, prominent, triumphant, and promising.

I cheered and shouted the first time I saw it.

I cheer and shout each time I re-watch it, too. It’s hard not to. The Star Wars theme is iconic. It’s the triumph of good over evil, it’s the struggle of the underdog, it’s fighting the good fight, it’s the oppressed overcoming the oppressor. It’s the sonic embodiment of myth. It’s epically epic. And not just the Star Wars theme, but all of John Williams’ principal motifs (and many of his minor motifs). Star Wars is a modern mythos, and Williams’ music reveals how deeply our cultural consciousness has absorbed this epic. Nearly everyone knows the theme, the motif for the Darth Vader, the motifs for Leia and Han, for the Force. And many people know the motifs for the Jawas, the Ewoks, Yoda, C-3P0 and R2-D2, and the Sith. Some of the newer motifs, for Anakin, the Droid Invasion, and Anakin and Padme, for example, aren’t quite as deep in our cultural consciousness at this point, and I doubt anyone would be quite as familiar with them outside of the context of those movies. We will probably not hear any marching bands play them anytime soon. But the Star Wars theme, and the Imperial March, condense and evoke the original trilogy so well that only a few snippets of each are necessary to recognize them.

And the really awesome part is that even 15 years ago, that wasn’t always the case. If Episodes I, II, and III did anything for the Star Wars franchise, it was to make it more recognizable than ever before. I remember college marathons of the original trilogy, on VHS, no less, with the fabulous Catherine Harris (now Brown), an awesome friend and the only other person I knew who could reliably be counted on to marathon the original trilogy (at the time, the word “original” was unnecessary) on any given college night. There were people in my residence hall who had never seen any Star Wars movie and who were not able to recognize any snippets of music, much less any of the more minor motifs. And while people who have never seen a single Star Wars movie still exist today, they are much fewer in number (possibly because there are now six movies, instead of just three), and I imagine their existences to be wispy and unfulfilled.

Commercialism, of course, must account for some of this. Someone figured out that geeks and nerds tend also to be collectors, and began marketing accordingly.  But, what was once unpopular culture has now become popular culture, and comics and sci-fiction and fantasy are now part of mainstream media and mainstream culture. Even the Internet, and computers, once the staple of reclusive geekdom, are everyday and mundane. And while a new Star Wars movie isn’t mundane, it’s possibly even more enthusiastically awaited now than the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, which brought an abundance of Jedis to movie theatres across America. And part of that enthusiasm is due to the mundanity of things like the Internet, and Facebook, which let geekdoms flourish in their home medium, creating cultural staples and reinforcing the great American Epic. As memes spread, as the Imperial March and Star Wars theme proliferate and multiply, their significance deepens as the motifs to the light and the dark sides of the Force spread to any representation of good or evil. The Jedi Kittens are a perfect example. While the first relied on light saber sound effects (as recognizable as the music), the second, Jedi Kittens Strike Back, additionally created a score reminiscent of Williams (but without any actual copyright infringement), playing on the motif for the Sith.

Abrams’ trailer not only recognizes this, it accentuates it. The music sweeps as the Millennium Falcon sweeps, bursting into the theme at the apex of its flight. The music in the teaser trailer nods to the prequels, in the scene with the Sith, before it evokes the original trilogy with the Millennium Falcon. Each scene is matched with a perfect sonic moment. Because it’s sound that thrills us, that evokes, that lures, that inspires, just as much as the images. When The Phantom Menace was released, I went to theatre early that morning to buy tickets. At the 7pm showing, Jedis and Rebels and Imperial troops and civilians all filed into the seats. The air was electrified, as if by light sabers. We clenched our popcorns and sodas.  And we sat, expectantly, silently. It wasn’t the the words the moved us. It wasn’t the blue text reading “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” that sent popcorn flying as everyone leapt to their feet, shouting, applauding, stomping, and cheering through the opening sequence.

It was the music.